By ADAM BOWLES
Posted Jan 31, 2009 @ 12:07 AM
Last update Jan 31, 2009 @ 01:08 AM
Norwich, Conn. — In 1994, someone carefully cut a large portrait of Abraham Lincoln from its Victorian frame, which hung in the entrance of Norwich’s City Hall across from the city manager’s office, and disappeared with it into the night.
Fifteen years later, the thief remains at large and the portrait missing — a mystery that perturbs and perplexes city leaders and historians. But with Lincoln’s 200th birthday celebration Feb. 12, there is a renewed effort to recover the posthumous portrait.
Alderman Robert Zarnetske is proposing a reward of up to $1,500 for what his resolution says is a painting worth more than $10,000. Its “immense civic value,” as described in the resolution expected to go before City Council Monday, stems from Norwich’s cherished connections to Lincoln and to the likely artist, John Denison Crocker, who lived in Norwich most of his life.
“It’s important to get it back,” Norwich Historian Dale Plummer said. “It’s an important work of art by an important local artist. At the same time it celebrates and commemorates the city’s association with Lincoln. The theft of the painting was really a crime against the present and future citizens of Norwich. That’s what’s so reprehensible about it.”
Norwich Police Sgt. Patrick Daley was a patrolman at the time of the Lincoln portrait theft. The case was assigned to the detective division, leads were followed, and police came up empty.
But about six months ago, Daley approached Norwich police officer Steven Lamantini.
“He came to me and said, ‘Let’s start working again on the Lincoln caper,’” Lamantini said.
Lamantini and Daley called Plummer, historian Bill Stanley, Slater Memorial Museum curator Vivian Zoe and others to see if anyone had any information or photos of the portrait.
The investigation included poring over a box of 2,500 photos at City Hall to see if any included the portrait, even if in the background. None did. Lamantini called the FBI and checked with other police departments that have seized stolen paintings. Still nothing.
Finally, Zoe found someone who had a photo.
William Hosley, director of the New Haven Museum, has been methodically digitizing part of his personal photo collection from various trips to historical sites across Connecticut and recently came across the Lincoln photo. He e-mailed it to Plummer and Zoe, keeping in mind Lincoln’s birthday.
“The picture was so striking that I figured I better take a picture of the picture,” Hosley said of his trip to City Hall. “It was an extraordinary picture frame. It was the most impressive object of that type. It just leapt out at me.”
Hosley said the thief was “dumb” to take the picture but not the frame, because the frame would be worth even more money than the portrait. Hosley said City Hall simply didn’t assign anyone to care for and secure its artifacts.
Zoe said the portrait was likely painted by Crocker, a local artist whose works are featured in an exhibit at the museum and at City Hall.
“This is a really nice portrait,” she said. “It’s very finished. There’s a writing desk and inkwell and writing pen. He’s holding a paper symbolizing the Emancipation Proclamation. And he’s looking directly at the painter. He looks very approachable and like someone who is the image and icon that we all have come to believe Lincoln was.”
Zoe said the face is “very Crockeresque” because of the details in the folds of the face and Lincoln’s direct look into the eyes of the viewer. The anatomy of the hands also is well done.
Though the painting likely was done about 20 years after Lincoln died, Zoe said it probably was not just a painting of a painting. She said the hands and face likely were based on other images and Crocker simply added the desk and other objects, such as a gold chain that held Lincoln’s pocket watch.
Zoe is unsure whether Crocker signed the portrait.
Plummer said the portrait is especially significant to Norwich because of the city’s ties to Lincoln. On March 9, 1860, Lincoln spoke at the old City Hall and then spent the night at the Wauregan.
Lincoln, not yet a presidential candidate at the time, visited the state to campaign for Republican Gov. William A. Buckingham’s re-election. He was introduced to Norwich as a possible good vice president. Also, a Lincoln campaign banner is on display at City Hall.
Lamantini said it would have been difficult for the thief to sell such a unique item without drawing attention. He suspects the portrait is rolled up in the thief’s home or hanging in a private collection somewhere.
In either case, Plummer and Hosley said they wouldn’t mind if the thief simply left the portrait on City Hall’s doorsteps and walked away.
Anyone who has information about the Abraham Lincoln portrait stolen from City Hall in 1994 is asked to call Sgt. Patrick Daley or officer Steven Lamantini at (860) 886-5561.
On Monday, the City Council is expected to review a resolution proposing a reward of up to $1,500 for information leading to the recovery of the item.
The resolution also would authorize City Manager Alan Bergren to publish copies of a newly acquired photograph of the portrait and enlist the assistance of law enforcement officials in the investigation.